it’s quiet here this morning, too quiet. it’s been that way for 10 long weeks.
the only sound is the susurration of the furnace. poor overtaxed furnace. burning kilowatts to try to keep us warm, to keep the goosebumps at bay.
the missing sound is the tick that follows the tock that follows the tick. and on and on and on.
there’s a clock, an old old clock, one once packed up in a florida house, laid carefully atop a formica-slabbed kitchen table, not unlike a baby after a bath, wrapped in towels, slipped in a box, and carefully carefully sent from west palm beach to chicago. where, once it arrived, we lifted it, hung it, wound it, and listened.
i’ve been listening ever since.
i’ve aligned my heart to the tick and tock of that old clock — a clock whose provenance we have only guessed at. i thought dutch. a clocksmith told me “mexican.” what i do know of its provenance is that my beloved, that tall bespectacled fellow, had a grandpa who loved clocks. and that grandpa’s pride and joy — or the ticking one, anyway — was his wall of clocks from across the time line and the world map. that wall, in that house down florida way, it clanged and squawked and chimed, a ticking-tocking quarter-hour reverie.
i never met that grandpa, but the grandma to whom he’d long been paired, she became, in one fell swoop, the dearest grandma i ever knew. i might have spent the rest of my happy days bopping around as the irish catholic granddaughter of a teeny, wrinkled, jewish fireball, but she died 11 years ago this week, far too soon even though she was pushing 93 and change. they called her the “teaneck tornado,” my jewish grandma, the one who took college classes into her eighties, the one who once threatened to fly a slab of cow in her suitcase so she could teach me how to make a brisket. the one whose squeaky “barb!” — a puncturing pronunciation that launched every long-distance rapid-fire tete-a-tete — i still can hear, without even closing my eyes to crank the long-gone volume.
that grandma — her name was syl — she shipped off the clock, and twice a week for 23 years, i wound it. the rest of the time, i counted on it to keep the rhythms of my hours, to be the heartbeat of our house. it moved, in the back seat of the station wagon, from our city house to this old house out where lanes are leafy and the lake is near enough that, on a windy day, i can make out the rhythms of the waves shooshing against the shore.
and there’s no sound that says “i’m home” more certainly than the tick and tock and quarter-hour chime of that old timekeeper.
so when it slowed to the silence that follows the tick, when i realized the tock was not coming, we all stared wide-eyed at the wall. as if there’d been a death in the family. certainly, there’d been a silencing. the heartbeat of the house was gone, erased, snuffed out. and in a house where these days most every purchase is weighed, is considered, we didn’t take lightly the news that this clock’s stay in the timekeeper’s infirmary would tally quite a bill.
but, not unlike the ancient cat who prowls the soft spots of the house, the house’s heartbeat is beyond domestic calculation, outside the accountant’s domain. if your striped old cat is ailing, you wrap the furry fellow in a towel and you ferry him to the vet. so, too, the clock.
i swallowed hard as i lifted the old clock from the wall. and, yes, i wrapped it in old bath towels. i parked as close to the door of the timekeeper’s shop as i could get — anything to slash the chance of me and the clock skittering to the sidewalk, in a thousand irreparable pieces. and i turned it over with all the solemnity of a mother sending off her little boy for a tonsillectomy (okay, maybe minus the tears, but trembling nonetheless).
we endured a christmas without a clock, and the new year too slid in without the ceremonial clang-clang-clang (our old clock never has been aligned with the hours). heck, we bumbled right through ground hog day without the metronome of time passing audibly. and here we are, the clock is coming home today. any hour now, i’ll strap on my snow boots, maybe even add the yaxtrax to keep from slipping on the ice, and i’ll plow through mounds and glide on icy patches to fetch my clock and bring it back where it belongs — home, hanging on the red-red wall that’s been achingly absent its old, old ticker.
all this, of course, has got me to thinking. thinking about how it is that humans are hard-wired to the song of the heartbeat. how it’s the first of the sensory awakenings in the unborn child. long before the eyes have anything to see, the human eardrum begins its lifelong percussive beat (if, God willing, the auditory system is developing as hoped and prayed). somewhere between the 17th and 19th week in a mama’s womb, the unborn baby’s world is wakened to the sound of breath and heartbeat, rhythm and vibration at their most elemental, most soothing i’d imagine.
the wonderful scientists who study these things have found, among other pulse-quickening wonders, that the baby’s heart echoes the mother’s response to music. when the mama hears soothing dulcet tones, her baby’s heart settles into slow steady intervals. when the mama is jarred by cacophony, by dissonant screeching, the baby’s heart rate accelerates, startles.
hearing, we know, is the last of the earthly threads to be severed when death is but a breath or two away.
so is it any wonder that in the blessed interval between in utero and death, we humans turn to heartbeat — be it of a clock, or the drip of rain, or our own ear pressed against the chest of whoever it is we love deeply enough, tenderly enough, to be invited to the chest wall’s quiet ticking?
and is it any wonder that some of us are soothed by whatever brings us back in time and rhythm to that one first murmuring, that percussive pounding, that told us we were safe, enwombed, nestled up against a mama’s ever-pulsing heart?
what are some of your favorite soothing sounds?
long ago, back in 2007, on the jewish “new year of the trees,” known as tu b’shevat, which we marked this week, i wrote a meander called vernal whisperings. because it’s a moment of the jewish calendar that i find especially breathtaking, i’m offering it back here at the table.
here’s a bit of tu b’shevat’s deliciousness, as taught by 16th century mystics:
“known as the kabbalists, these deeply spiritual thinkers believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life.
Am hoping the clock has now taken back its rightful place and is tick-tocking happily. There is something so elemental about that sound. I loved reading all the lusciousness of vernal whisperings. And I’ve read that, about hearing being the last sense to depart … which is why I sang “I love you a bushel and a peck” to my mom as she was leaving, a song she sang to me countless times as a child. I have to say my favorite sound in the world is … no sound. I love silence. But my husband’s voice would be a close second; there is no sound for me that is more soothing.
so so beautiful…..i just melted over here……tears picturing/hearing you singing your mama’s love song TO your mama. and your love of silence…..i love my silence animated by breeze or rustling in the garden. and far off bird song. so, gosh, i guess my silence isn’t so silent. and that your dear husband’s voice is, to you, heartbeat, the heartbeat of home. that is breathtaking.
the mention of “bushel and a peck” made me think of a lovely something i heard a week or so ago while out and about. i was actually at a lovely retreat center, The Well, in lagrange, talking about “la book,” and two perfectly angelic women mentioned that their ministry in life is that they bring their angelic voices to hospices and places where death is just around the bend, and they sing through the last hours of someone’s life. i was flooded with tears. that there are those who’ve understood the midwifery that belongs at both ends of life.
nancy, you’ve made me think about refrains in musical form that are the grounding stitch of childhood — my mom sang to me “raindrops on roses….” and i sing to my little guy — still! — “mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird,” making up as many silly rhymes as needed….till the calming, or the sleep, comes…xoxo
Have wanted to learn how to play harp because I would love to do that in a hospice setting. But if piano is any indication … that’s a long time coming. 🙂 How lovely that those women sing, and your “midwifery” at both ends of life paints a beautiful picture.
Oh my gosh….”Bushel and a Peck” is what I sang to my babies all the time too! They still laugh about it. I also sang Red Sails In The Sunset. My mom sang “Oh Little Playmate” to me and I sang that back to her when she was departing. Nancy, I love your musical heart to pieces.
I’m so glad your beloved wall clock has returned to you at last! Ten weeks is a long time to have endured its absence, particularly over the holidays.
My parents have had a grandfather clock for 28 years – it still ticks melodically away in my dad’s house.
Nancy, I loved hearing that you sang “I Love You A Bushel and Peck” to your mother as she was leaving. I sang “Sweet and Low” to my momma during her last hours. . .
I love that your mother sang “My Favorite Things” to you, dear Barbara, and that you sing “Hush, Little Baby” to your dear son. So comforting, the love and joy and wisdom and security that are passed from generation to generation.
I love the sound of wind in the pines, the patter of raindrops on the roof, the song of the robin and the trilling of spring peepers, crickets in the tall grass, the steady purr of a kitten.
The music of life — so many lovely things to think about and be grateful for. Thank you for this beautiful post. xoxo
Oh, Amy, yes, all those wonderful sounds … I feel my soul taking a deep breath …
xoxo you two are a twinned pair of tenderhearts….
What is better than the sound of a ticking clock? I thought as I started reading this post. Then, as always, you drilled deeper into it and brought up all kinds of images and memories. I can’t live without the sound of leaves, both on trees and skittering around after they fall. Horses’ clip-clopping. The wall-rattling entrance of a teenage boy exploding through the front door after school, and the regular breathing of my own beloved as he slips into sleep mode. Thanks for the reminder to keep my ears open!
beautiful and beautiful. i love your litany of sound. i heard every one. and love that you leapt right in. happy day after birthday, sweet angel! i meant to write a birthday note in the p.s. so here it is now….xoxo
Thanks, bam! And enjoy your revived clock. May it tick on forever!
In winter, creaky stairs and pinging radiators are my sounds, especially at night when the house is settling. We have been here for twenty-nine years and so each stair and radiator has its own familiar tune. It is sort of a structural symphony. Summer music comes from open windows and is more of morning doves, the sounds of the el train a couple blocks east, with the chorus of our local dogs that like to sing with every ambulance and church bell. These are all sounds of “home”, peculiar but comforting and what should a home besides comforting?
i love the litany of sounds we’ve brought here. i can hear them all, so it’s the crazy wonderful cacophony of whispering noises — from creaking arthritic stairs to soft footfalls, to hissing pinging heat sources. all around sound, and we are listening, absorbing the comforts it brings. and i love your choice of words, “structural symphony.” john cage might feel right at home with the dissonant sound found here…..
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